If the diversity of Australian spirits lining our shelves is anything to go by, we’re in a golden era for homegrown craft distilleries. What's more, this explosion of new products is increasingly coming with a real Aussie flavour, too, whether it's gin, vodka, whisky, eau de vie or one of the kaleidoscopes of new local spirits.
In this, our last feature for 2022, writer and sommelier Sam Payne has leapt into the world of Australian craft spirit trends and the local ingredients that are shaping them. Plus, for your drinking pleasure, a dessert of three unique distilled wonders to try.
Over the last twelve years, more and more distillers have been carefully working with ingredients suited to the Australian climate and incorporating these uniquely Aussie flavours into their production (with great success).
'The obvious thing that makes Australian spirits stand apart from other spirits distilled around the world (especially in gin and vodka) is our unique botanicals.' explains Kathleen Davies, a spirit educator and founder of Nip of Courage - an online shop (and wholesale business) which shines a light on Australian spirits with education about the people who craft them.
‘Most gins now in Australia would incorporate at least one native botanical’, Davies continues.
This innovative embrace of local ingredients extends from retail spaces to bars across the country.
'I’m definitely seeing a continuing increase in interest for local craft spirit’, explains Jack Wilkes, Bar Manager of the newly awarded GT Restaurant of the Year, Restaurant Botanic in Adelaide.
'I think the international exposure has found traction, and we’re getting a lot of our guests from abroad excited to see what Australia has to offer. Especially whisky lovers with an eye on Tasmania, and now the “no diving” sign has been taken down, lots of interstate guests wanting to get into SA’s gin pool.'
But like most new drinks, there’s still an element of trial and error when 'distilling out of the box' as we do here in Australia.
Head Distiller and Co-Founder of Four Pillars Cameron Mackenzie jokes that, like winemaking, the experiments don't always work, but that's part of the process. 'There's a reason you're not writing about our asparagus gin – things don't always work. Nine out of ten won't see the light of day.'
However, a successful case of experimenting with native plants in spirit production is Brendan and Laura Carter’s Applewood Distillery in South Australia and their limited-release range of native botanical-inspired gins. 'Laura and I holistically started Applewood, we all want the normalisation of native ingredients, but farmers will only plant what’s profitable – spirit production uses the largest amount of raw material, doesn’t go off and lasts a long time.'
Through their development and relationships with farmers, they now have a steady supply of high-quality native ingredients. The feature gins usually sell out in 48 hours; once they’re gone, they’ll never be repeated.
It would also be remiss not to mention the leaps and bounds that have been made in the world of non-alcoholic spirits, the two most successful examples being the new Bandwagon range from Four Pillars and the leader in the category, Lyre’s. After eighteen months of development, Four Pillars released their 'Bandwagon' range of non-alcoholic gins, or 'faux pillars' as it's affectionately called at the distillery. For instance, the Bloody Shiraz version uses Yarra Valley Shiraz grapes to build colour and bust out of the glass with red berries and hints of spice.
The entire Lyre’s range is crafted to capture the essence of a classic selection of spirits from vodka to tequila and everything in between. So while they might be unable to replicate the mouthfeel that alcohol gives a spirit, they’re spot on with the flavours.
'It was only 2019, but the technology was still very minimal in terms of what we could do,' recalls Lyre’s Global Flavour Architect David Murphy.
'The process went on for several months, going back and forth, thinking about how we can improve glycerol textures because alcohol has a high sugar content. The glycerol is naturally occurring alcohol that usually lifts aromas and has a specific “mouth feel”. We found ways to emulate those types of things.'
So what does the limitless future hold for these handcrafted and uniquely Australian spirits?
In Davies’ opinion, 'What I’m hoping to see is a changing in perspective, you might pay a little more for one of these smaller artisan distilleries than your mainstream overseas brands, but you’re getting a far superior product that tastes like “home”'.
From Larrakia Country (Darwin region), NT. Harvested during ‘monsoon season’ (Jan/Feb), bush apples are tiny, almost berry-sized native apples. They have this incredible floral sweetness, a tangy finish, and an almost pomegranate texture. This contemporary Australian gin is distilled with a base of bush apples alongside boobialla (native juniper), pepper berry, lemon myrtle and finger lime for a dry and delicate flavour that’s perfect for a G&T with a sprig of native thyme garnish.
From Rutherglen, Vic. When a fifth-generation winemaking family with over 160 years of fortified experience releases a whisky using smoked muscat barrels, you know it will be good. Born from a collaboration between Head Distiller and Head Cooper, Morris Smoked Muscat Whisky baked biscuit maltiness, rich raisin fruits and date notes, and a lingering smokiness not often seen outside of peated Scottish whisky.
From Macedon Ranges, Vic. In one of the rarer examples of spirit production in this country, a merger between Australia and Mexico – an agave spirit made with 100% Organic Blue Weber Agave. Their fermentation combines an isolated yeast strain sourced from tequila and mezcal production in Mexico with the subtle influence of local wild yeasts because of open ferments in the foothills of the Macedon Ranges.